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David Arthur Walters

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An Exercise in Bovarysm
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Thursday, March 05, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2008

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Sartre thought the author of Madame Bovary was hysterical

Jules de Gaultier's Bovarysm takes advantage of Madame Emma Bovary's neurosis to prescribe a healthy response to the foolish romantic uneasiness of her time; or rather the time of her creator, Gustav Flaubert, the frustrated romantic who despised reality so much that he kept his girlfriend and muse, Louise Colet, perhaps the most beautiful woman and adulteress in France, at arm's length while writing Madame Bovary, the novel that sealed his reputation as the most literate founding father of modern French realism. His fellow writers could not understand why Flaubert would bother to write a realistic novel about such a commonplace subject - adultery. They did not understand that the novel was not about adultery per se. Jules de Gaultier saw through the facade Flaubert painted as Madame Bovary - Flaubert admitted that he was she. The book was really about art for art's sake, about style, about nothing substantial, about illusion.

Sartre was convinced that Flaubert, with his hatred for reality and his love of nothing in particular, was a sort of hysteric, subject to the French brand of neurosis called pythiatism. Psychotics have broken with social reality - they have delusions and are unable to function in society. But neurotics who have illusions can get along in society. Of course an inheritance might help a neurotic writer continue with his avoidance strategy indefinitely - being able to pay one's way provides a some semblance of sanity or wholesomeness in bourgeois society. Everyone is at least slightly neurotic. Nobody is perfectly acquainted with reality. We can see that at least some of any individual's habitual, defensive responses to his or her threatening environment are inappropriate; yet the rigid responses provide the person with a sort of framework for a sense of security, and the person will find others who have the same neurosis.

For instance, everyone who believes that he or she is very important or quite worthless from time to time suffers the modern disease of individualism - paranoia - to a certain degree. We have our illusions, we know life is illusory, the guru's nonsense about maya makes sense. Phenomena is all we can objectively know, and that knowledge, since it is not of the things in themselves, is necessarily false, or so the argument goes. The personal subject is really not an object unto itself but is rather an imaginative reflection, a fiction, a self-deception, so why not admit it? Who is Gustav Flaubert or anybody else for that matter but a fiction? The admission that the self is nothing but an illusion is of course difficult. Each denial of that truth is a false assertion of a definition that denies dynamic life with permanent restraints. If any one truth were true for all, all particulars of life would vanish in an absolute identity which would be the death of life itself - variety is the spice of life.

Things appear other than they are, as illusions, and we have illusions in common, just as we all see water glistening on a dry highway on a hot day due to an unusual refraction of light. Such is the law of phenomenal life, so why not accept that fact and turn it to good account? Jules de Gaultier accepted it, that we all live an illusory life, and he proposed that we make something of good of it. Since we are always something other than we might think we are, why not take the illusion in hand and intentionally conceive of ourselves as otherwise? In our search for unattainable "Reality" or "Truth" we may create our own illusory realities, conceived ourselves as other than we are, and, by virtue of this continual division of subject from object, live in accord with the law of motion which is the law of life. Hence Gaultier's brand of illusionism, Bovarysm, a therapeutic approach that takes advantage of Madame Bovary's and Flaubert's and everyone else's restless urge for nothing in particular - which we think is ultimately the unconscious will to exist forever without definite restraints - and applies certain common sense guidelines for its exercise so that the individual will have a more satisfactory or healthy life. Of course the mention of "guidelines" gives us due cause to suspect that our therapist is contradicting himself, but never mind, for albeit that is a persistent issue, it is not a problem for the philosophy of illusionism. Bovarysm acknowledges the underlying crisis or hypocrisy in the first instance, in the subject-object dichotomy that gives the self-conscious human being due cause to make something of himself.

Bovarysm would dispense with the unconscious hence pathological aspiration of Madame Bovary - she unwittingly wanted the infinite. We presume that, IF we are conscious of our problems, THEN we have a better chance of overcoming them. We should know that the infinite cannot be had in any form. Madame Bovary felt a want that could never be satisfied, for it was want in itself, a desire without end, and as long as she was unaware of the fact that he desire could never be satisfied, she could settle for no man in particular because no man could ever be good enough for her.

If we would live a happier life, we should at least know what is possible. Simple belief, or rather blind faith in the impossible, will not suffice to obtain the impossible dream. We must "Know thyself" in the sense of knowing our limits. Like Madame Bovary, one should conceive oneself as other than one is. Unlike her, one must conceive oneself as one can be, not as one cannot be. The realization of the ideal one wants to become may be improbable, but it should at least be possible of achievement. And it must be definite, or one will never know whether it is achieved or not. A human being cannot be a lion. Becoming other than what one is should be in harmony with the self already developed: if the change is to take hold, there must not be a radical rupture with the current state of being. For instance, as man cannot go backward in time and become a bird, a rat, a fish, or give himself gills instead of lungs; but he can imagine himself as a bird and invent the airplane; he can imagine himself as a fish and learn to swim and invent scuba equipment to swim under water. Past decisions tend to diminish the number of future possibilities. As one ascends a decision tree, the number of branches ahead dwindle in number compared to the possible branches left behind. Hence when becoming other than what one is, the conception should take that into account, that the life ascension a work in progress, that the beginning part of the process, like a child or a beginner, is more flexible or subject to change than the mature adult or advanced climber. In any case, instantaneous or miraculous changes are highly improbable.

Of course there is much more common sense to Bovarysm in practice, but we have enough for an excercise in Bovarysm.




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